Bloated free agent contracts bad for baseball

Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price smiles at a news conference announcing his signing by the team at Fenway Park in Boston, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price smiles at a news conference announcing his signing by the team at Fenway Park in Boston, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Published Dec. 21, 2015

Here are two numbers that let you know everything that's wrong with baseball.

Eight and 184.

That stands for eight years, $184 million — the deal free agent Jason Heyward signed last week with the Cubs.

Jason Heyward. An outstanding defensive outfielder. Yet, he has never hit .300. In six big-league seasons, he has hit more than 20 homers only once, has never driven in more than 82 runs and has never stolen more than 23 bases.

Yet he's worth nearly $200 million simply because there's a team out there that has enough money in the bank to pay it and is desperate enough for wins to spend it.

Here are more numbers.

Seven and 217. That's the seven-year, $217 million contract the Red Sox gave to former Rays pitcher David Price, whose all-time postseason record as a starter is 0-7.

Then there's six and 206, as in the six-year, $206 million pitcher Zack Greinke got from the Diamondbacks, even though he is 32 years old.

One final number:


That's the chance the Rays have in getting in today's free agent game. They're far from the only ones shut out this time of year.

When you have fewer than half the teams with the ability to pay for the elite talent in baseball, you have a serious problem with the game. Doesn't seem fair.

Last week at baseball's winter meetings, Rays owner Stu Sternberg compared his club to three-speed bicycles while other teams were driving tanks. He's right. Small-market teams such as the Rays, Royals, Pirates and Twins always have trouble keeping up with the Joneses — or, in this case, the Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs.

This also isn't meant to blame the Red Sox or Cubs. They want to win. The rules allow them to spend whatever they want.

No, this is a baseball problem. Why should fans in places such as Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh or the Twin Cities get excited about the game when they have little chance to afford the talent that makes a consistently competitive team?

The argument that some use is that small-market teams can compete in the big leagues.

Look at the Royals. They have been to back-to-back World Series, winning it all against the big-market Mets in 2015. Look at the Pirates. They have made the playoffs three consecutive seasons. Look no farther than down the street at the Rays. Since 2008, they've had a winning record six times and made four postseason appearances.

See, baseball folks say, you can be a small-market team and compete.

That's true. To a point.

While we see a small-market team competing most seasons, it's not the same small-market teams every year. Teams such as the Royals, Pirates and Rays have windows. Once those windows close, they tend to sink back to the bottom of the standings until they can draft and develop a new crop of stars. For many, that could take a decade. Or longer. Ask the Brewers or Padres.

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Certainly, it's not as easy as simply signing whatever big-time free agent is available.

The other issue for small-market teams is they can't miss when it comes to developing stars and signing the few free agents they can afford. Big-market teams can sign a player to a fat contract and if he doesn't pan out, they can afford to go out and sign another. Small-market teams have to live with their mistakes.

None of this is breaking news. The question is what's the solution to fix a game that many don't even see as broken?

The obvious answer is implement a salary cap.

Seems to work in the NFL, where small-market teams such as Green Bay and Carolina have every bit the chance to win as big-market teams such as New York and Chicago.

Seems to work in the NBA, where teams can often keep the stars they draft and develop. Seems to work in the NHL, where a team such as the Lightning is on even ground with the big-market Rangers.

But a salary cap will never happen in baseball. It won't. A luxury tax is the best to hope for and that, clearly, doesn't deter teams from spending whatever they want on whomever they want.

So there's only one real hope for the little guy.

Once, just once, wouldn't it be nice to see the Rays go all-in for a big-time star such as Greinke?

Maybe all the new revenues that come with a new television deal and a swanky state-of-the-art stadium would create the necessary funds to go after a star.

Hey, it's not totally absurd.

Arizona is the spittin' image of the Rays. They're expansion cousins, both entering the league in 1998. The markets are similar — small (compared to many MLB teams) with a transient population loaded with fans from other cities. The Diamondbacks used new TV money to make a serious pitch at free agent Johnny Cueto and when Cueto turned them down, they went after Greinke.

It's hard to see the Rays ever doing something like that, to be honest. If they did, it would probably be a one-time thing.

Until then, baseball's catch phrase shouldn't be, "Play ball.'' Instead, it should be this undisputed fact:

"Life isn't fair."